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How to Import Tobacco in USA: A Practical Guide for Profit

Live tobacco leaves
There are many government agencies that oversee the import of tobacco, like the DFA, TTB, and more. Learn more about how to begin importing tobacco products successfully.
By
Natalie Kienzle
January 27, 2022
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Last Modified: September 9, 2022

Want to learn how to import tobacco in USA? The tobacco industry in the United States remains one of the most stable economic investments you can make. However, it is also one of the most regulated. Learn how to navigate different government requirements while making a profit.

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) manages the import of tobacco products. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sets regulations for the labeling, advertisement, distribution, and packaging of tobacco products. Importers must be at least 21 years old to bring in tobacco for commercial or personal use.

Be aware of the variety of regulations that control tobacco imports and distribution within the United States commerce system.

How to Import Tobacco in USA: Tobacco vs. Tobacco Products

The term tobacco may refer to the raw tobacco leaf, seed, or plant and tobacco products. The import of raw tobacco leaves or tobacco plants is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). For this article, we will be informing you about the requirements of importing tobacco products only, not the raw material. 

Tobacco products are defined as “any product made or derived from tobacco that is intended for human consumption including any component, part, or accessory of a tobacco product.”

Tobacco Products:

  • Cigars
  • Cigarettes
  • E-Cigarettes
  • Smokeless tobacco (snuff or chewing)
  • Pipe tobacco
  • Roll-your-own tobacco
  • Bidis (flavored cigarettes

Tobacco Components, Parts, Accessories:

  • Cigarette papers and tubes
  • Pipes
  • Rolling paper
  • Filters
  • Electronic smoking devices

The tobacco industry in the United States has a market profit range of upwards of $50 billion. Despite growing awareness of the harmful effects of tobacco and an overall decrease in the number of adult smokers, market profits continue to steadily increase. 

This makes the tobacco industry one of the most stable to invest in. High demand for imported tobacco products creates a lucrative market, but only after you have successfully navigated through the variety of regulations, restrictions, and taxes governing the process. 

Importing Tobacco for Personal Use

how to import tobacco in USA as Stacks of dried tobacco leaves

If you are a traveler just looking to import tobacco products for personal use, there are still regulations to adhere to according to the Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic (FD&C) Act. First and foremost, regardless of the legal purchase age in the country of origin, you must be at least 21 years of age to travel back to the United States with tobacco products. This is per the Tobacco 21 legislation that raised the legal age to purchase tobacco in the U.S. from 18 to 21. 

Provided you are of legal age, you are allowed to import up to 200 cigarettes and 100 cigars from outside the country. However, there is a minor loophole. If you are traveling back from an insular possession or beneficiary country of the United States, you are allowed 1,000 cigarettes every 31 days, but only 200 of those cigarettes can be from outside the exemption location. Their value should also be within the allowed $1,600 duty and tax exemption. 

These locations include:

  • American Samoa
  • Guam
  • Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands
  • U.S. Virgin Islands

Despite being a U.S. territory, the island of Puerto Rico is not included. Travelers returning to the continental U.S. from Puerto Rico are still subject to the standard limitation. 

Outside of standard cigarettes and cigars, you may bring back other tobacco products. However, you might need to pay a Federal Excise Tax depending on the type, quantity, and weight. How much you owe is determined on a case-by-case basis. 

If you plan on importing pipe or loose-leaf tobacco for personal use, you also need to check with the individual port of entry since regulations will vary by state. Flavored cigarettes, commonly known as bidis, are banned from entry.  

Planning to Import Tobacco for Personal Use?

Speak to one of our experienced and Licensed Customs Brokers to get the help you need.

Importing Tobacco for Commercial Use

Containers of ground tobacco

Requirements are much stricter when you are importing tobacco products for commercial use. All tobacco product imports require a permit. Tobacco products are subject to different taxes beyond the standard duty rates of the Harmonized Tariff Schedule. Prior to importing, you should also consider how you plan on distributing the products. Regulations on tobacco product advertisement, labeling, and distribution may impact your business negatively if not followed carefully. 

When your products arrive in the U.S., their market authorization, labeling, and user fees will all be verified by the FDA. Shipments will also need to pass all inspection requirements of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agency like all other imports. 

Import documents are carefully verified by the FDA and the CBP and include the:

  • Declared manufacturer
  • Declared importer /  consignee
  • Product description
  • Affirmations of Compliance 

While Affirmations of Compliance are not required for all tobacco product imports, submitting one voluntarily may fast-track the screening and review of your shipment and product through customs. Generally speaking, accuracy in all documentation, permitting, and labeling may make it possible for your shipments to be quickly processed electronically. Otherwise, your shipment may be held back until the CBP conducts a manual inspection, which may take much longer.

Permits

Tobacco product importers need to apply for an import permit through the TTB. Two permits apply specifically to importers.  

  1. Tobacco Importer: Permit for the import of the standard tobacco products (cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, snuff, pipe tobacco, and roll-your-own tobacco) for business purposes.
  2. Importer of Processed Tobacco: Permit for businesses importing processed tobacco or tobacco products. If you already obtained a Tobacco Importer permit, it may be modified to include processed tobacco. 

The other permits issued by the TTB are specific to tobacco products after they’ve arrived. If you are going to manufacture tobacco products with the material you imported, you may need to apply for a Tobacco Products Manufacturer permit or a Manufacturer of Processed Tobacco (MPR) permit.

A permit is not required if you are importing Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDs) that contain no tobacco. 

Labeling

Whether you are importing for distribution purposes or for further manufacturing, the FDA requires specific labeling for the product itself or its advertisement material. 

Tobacco products need to comply with these requirements even before they can be imported per the FD&C Act and the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (Tobacco Control Act). Proper labeling is determined by the type of product. The labels themselves have to follow the guidelines of the Cigarette Labeling and Advertisement Act. 

To pass inspection by the CBP and FDA, general shipment labels must include:

  • The name and location of the tobacco product manufacturer, packer, or distributor
  • An accurate statement of quantity that defines the shipment in terms of weight, measure, and/or numerical count
  • A statement declaring “Sale only allowed in the United States”

Further labels specified by the FDA depending on the type of tobacco product include:

  • Nicotine warnings
  • Modified risk descriptors (‘low’, ‘mild’, ‘light’)
  • Advertised warnings for smokeless tobacco
  • Labeling for therapeutic purposes
  • Artificial or natural flavors (other than tobacco or menthol)

Because labeling needs to be addressed before tobacco products can enter the United States, you should also be aware of the Federal Trade Commission’s warning label rotation schedule. A series of four warnings are rotated on smokeless tobacco products, such as snuff and chewing tobacco. 

Nine rotating labels must be used on cigarettes. If you are obtaining your products from foreign markets and factories, they must still be in compliance with U.S. laws. 

Which Government Agencies Regulate the Import of Tobacco?

Overhead view of warehouse shelves

Given the size and market worth of the tobacco industry in general, there are several government agencies involved in the importation and policing of tobacco products. In many instances, the agencies’ roles overlap one another making it very important to have guidance along the way. 

Food and Drug Administration

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the agency largely responsible for tobacco product regulations. At the time of import, it’s the FDA that checks for required licensing and permits, proper labeling, and otherwise enforcing the regulations that are part of the Tobacco Control Act and the FD&C Act.   

These regulations include the ban on flavored cigarettes, commonly known as bidis. According to the Tobacco Control Act, if any part of the cigarette (tobacco itself, filter, or paper) contains a flavor, herb, or spice that alters the characteristics of typical tobacco, it cannot be imported. The only allowed flavor is menthol. 

If you are looking to import a new type of tobacco product or a modification of an existing product, the FDA requires you to file a pre-market order. The order has to be done before importing for you to be allowed to distribute. A new product is one that didn’t exist or wasn’t available in the U.S. prior to February of 2007. 

You must also submit an application to the FDA for approval if you plan on importing and/or manufacturing tobacco products that are advertised as Modified Risk Tobacco Products (MRTPs). The application process, in this case, is specific to individual products, not necessarily to entire shipments. 

To learn more about clearing customs with the FDA, check out our article on The Complete Guide to FDA Customs Clearance.

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (AFT) is considered the police force enforcing tobacco product regulation and control. When individuals are trying to get around FDA regulations or import illegally, the AFT is there to catch them. The AFT works as a law enforcement agency to identify, target, and dismantle criminal trafficking of tobacco. This includes the trafficking of counterfeit cigarettes and tobacco products which has been on the rise. 

Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau

Import permits and tax collection are handled by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). The TTB collects the Federal Excise Taxes that are imposed on tobacco products and regulates the Special Occupational Tax (SOT) that may also be imposed. Their website maintains a list of laws and regulations for importing tobacco as well as domestic use and manufacture. 

When importing tobacco products, having a Licensed Customs Broker to navigate the requirements of obtaining a Tobacco Importer Permit is highly recommended. Due to the specific requirements and related fees, it isn’t something you want to take on without experienced guidance.

Center for Drug Evaluation and Research

The Center for Drug Evaluation and Research is specific to the import and marketing of any product that will be marketed for therapeutic purposes. In the tobacco industry, this usually means ENDs that are marketed as tools to help a user quit smoking traditional cigarettes. 

Get Help With Tobacco Import Regulations

Speak to one of our experienced and Licensed Customs Brokers to get the help you need no matter what you're importing

How Much Does it Cost to Import Tobacco?

Your cost to import tobacco will largely depend on type and quantity. Import duty rates are determined through the Harmonized Tariff Schedule. Proper classification of your products will be vital in paying the correct amount through customs duty. Mistakes in HTS codes may cost you in fees and time even if everything else is up to par. 

Aside from customs duties, there is a Federal Excise tax on tobacco products paid through the TTB. When importing cigarettes or cigars, shipment taxes are calculated in terms of units or cartons. There is also a breakdown between large and small sizes. Pipe, chewing, snuff, and roll-your-own tobacco are taxed by the pound, tin, or pouch. 

The following tables are a basic breakdown of possible excise taxes (meant only as guidance) paid to the TTB. Expert consultation is recommended for the true calculation of complete taxes to be paid. 

Excise Tax Owed for Tobacco Products

Tobacco Products1,000 unitsPack of 20
Small Cigarettes$50.33$1.01
Large Cigarettes$105.69$2.11
Small Cigars$50.33$1.01
Tobacco Products1000 UnitsEach
Large Cigars52.75% of sales price but not to exceed $402.60 per 1,000$.4026 maximum
Tobacco Products1 lb.1 Ounce Tin or Pouch
Pipe Tobacco$2.8311$0.1769
Chewing Tobacco$0.5033$0.0315
Snuff$1.51$0.0944
Roll-your-own Tobacco$24.78$1.5488
Source: TOBACCO – Current Tax Rates

Do Vaporizers Count as Tobacco Products? 

Vaporizers are classified as Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDs) along with e-cigarettes, vape pens, e-pipes, e-hookahs, and e-cigars. Because the majority of ENDs do not contain actual tobacco, they may be imported without a permit from the TTB

However, they are still under the jurisdiction of the FDA as of 2016 when it was ruled that ENDs fall under the category of tobacco products. The FDA, therefore, still regulates the manufacture, import, labeling, packaging, advertisement, and distribution of all ENDs and their main components. 

Can You Import Cuban Cigars Into the U.S.?

A box full of cigars

Sorry cigar fans, but Cuban cigars are banned from commercial or personal import into the United States. This ban covers not just cigars, but any tobacco product manufactured in Cuba. Although you used to be able to bring cigars back for personal use following the established limit (200 cigarettes/100 cigars), as of September 24, 2020 regulations banned personal import as well. 

How Can a Customs Broker Help You Import Tobacco?

The process of importing tobacco is extremely regulated. Between the different agencies involved in the regulation and federal excise taxes imposed, there is a veritable mountain of paperwork to be gathered. Using a Licensed Customs Broker with experience in tobacco imports may mean the difference between turning a profit and being in the red. 

A customs broker may review applications for import permits for accuracy before submission to the TTB and guide you through the required documentation of the CBP and FDA. They may also ensure the accuracy of HTS codes, which are product-specific. 

Should any of these things be mislabeled or missing, you risk having your shipments stuck at their port of entry, potentially costing you thousands in fees. In other scenarios, the CBP may seize your shipment entirely or mark it to be destroyed. 

The tobacco industry might be a very profitable and stable market, but without the assistance of an expert, you just might regret taking on the challenge. 

Get Help Importing with USA Customs Clearance

At USA Customs Clearance, our licensed and experienced customs brokers are able to walk you through the entire import process. Whether you’re importing tobacco or anything else, scheduling a 1-on-1 consulting session with one of our experts can help ensure all of your imports are performed correctly.

Plan your import strategy and discuss import permits, customs bonds, fee calculations, and with a Licensed Customs Broker. In 30 minutes, you can get clarification on each step of the process. 

Invest in our consultation services and make the best decision for your import business. Call us at (855) 912-0406 for a no-obligation price quote and keep your profits from going up in smoke.

Need Help Importing?

Speak to one of our experienced and Licensed Customs Brokers to get the help you need no matter what you're importing

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One comment on “How to Import Tobacco in USA: A Practical Guide for Profit”

  1. Hi.
    I am looking, with a friens, to start importing cigarretts from Brazil. I am here at Brazil and he is looking to opening a trading/import co..
    Note that there is no company in his name so far, we would star from the beginning.
    I would like to receive a previous quotation for consultancy to open the business, requires licenses with FDA, TTB, as any others required.

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